At one time or another, it’s happened to all of us.
Maybe you were able to catch and correct it on your own before anyone else noticed.
Or perhaps you had to swallow your pride and serve the salmon steaks that had taken on a striking resemblance to hockey pucks.
But regardless of the outcome of your cooking mistakes, don’t get discouraged. Because, rest assured, rookie or seasoned kitchen vet alike, we all make our share of cooking gaffes. After all, to err is human and any endeavor undertaken with consistency will result in a bungle or two. It’s natural, and it’s a big part of how we learn.
Not all of the results of common cooking errors are disastrous – sometimes it’s just a flavor or texture that’s off a bit. Or a dish that’s a bit too bland, or oily, or dry…
Sometimes kitchen botches are just a matter of hand-me-down bad habits, because that’s how dear old Mum did it.
So, if you think some of your culinary efforts are falling a bit short, have a look at the following list to see if you’re making any of these common cooking mistakes.
We’ve scoured our own readers’ comments, and numerous online food forums to find the most frequent cooking mistakes ‘fessed up to by readers. Let’s have a closer look at some of these recurring kitchen blunders, what their causes are, and of course, what the solutions are for healthier and smarter cooking!
1. You Don’t Read the Entire Recipe Before Beginning.
In our age of scanning headlines for information, it’s easy to miss out on important steps/utensils/ingredients contained within the body of an article or a recipe, particularly if we’re reading online.
You can greatly bolster your cooking expertise by avoiding the common habit of making assumptions. Avoid a good dose of embarrassment too by being prepared…
Not only can omissions be embarrassing, skipping steps or leaving out ingredients can also result in dull, bland flavors, with tough textures and food that’s overly dry or too greasy.
To give yourself the best opportunity for success, read each recipe thoroughly, well before it’s time to begin prepping.
Develop the wise habit used by professional cooks and chefs of having all ingredients/tools/utensils in place and ready to go – this is your mise en place, which simply means to set in place, or to set up.
Not only will you know you have everything needed to create your culinary coup, you’ll also know how much time to budget. Because trying to rush dishes to completion is another common kitchen error that’s easily avoided.
Being fully set and prepared is a time and pride saver, and returns the effort many times over. Because really, you don’t want to be 5 hours away from serving your first Thanksgiving dinner for guests when you read the part about having to thaw the turkey in the fridge – for two days.
2. You Don’t Taste What You’re Cooking.
Have you ever tried a new recipe, only to be surprised and disappointed about how bland or unappealing it is?
Chances are, you didn’t taste the dish as it was cooking. When trying something new, we tend to assume the author is an expert and the recipe will contain exactly the right ingredients and instructions for us to obtain brilliant, outstanding results.
However, many factors come into play when cooking. Variables such as the particular ingredients used, substitutions, altitude, the idiosyncrasies of your stove, the weather, etc. all play a part in determining whether or not your palate is going to be happy.
Testing through taste allows us to make adjustments on the fly, so that we can steer our dish in the direction that’s going to be most satisfying for us. After all, we’re the ones who are going to eat it, so it should satisfy our taste buds!
3. You Crowd the Cooking Pan.
The level of enjoyment that eating brings us can be enhanced mightily by the senses of sight and smell. Visions and fragrances can build anticipation and add to our satisfaction… or, they can take away from it.
When we crowd too much food into a pan, the results are often soggy, or they look insipid and pale. As food is cooked, it releases moisture. And if there isn’t enough space for the moisture to evaporate, it will stay in the pan, steaming or simmering food instead of frying or sautéing it.
When browning foods like meat or onions, the crusty, brown residue that forms in the pan is very important for imparting flavor, as well as for the aesthetics of presentation. The browning that takes place is known as the Maillard reaction, and it occurs when amino acids and reduced sugars combine to give browned foods their distinctive flavor.
Crispy, amber-hued crab cakes are much more appealing and tasty than ones that are pale and mushy from steaming as a result of overcrowding.
So, for better results, give your ingredients some breathing room in the pan. Cook in batches if you can’t get everything in at once, or if you’re in a hurry, use two pans.
4. You Don’t Allow the Pan to Get Hot Enough.
If you don’t allow the pan to get hot enough to properly sear or sauté, you’re not allowing it to do its job properly. A hot pan is a valuable tool in the kitchen, but you must let it work as it was designed to. This mistake seems to have two possible sources: inexperience, or simply being in a hurry.
It is absolutely essential for a skillet to be hot enough for ingredients to sizzle, sear and sauté, or to create a crust. If a pan isn’t heated adequately, foods will stick (think of what happens to an omelet in a pan that isn’t hot enough), juices will leak out, foods will simmer instead of being seared, and browning won’t occur.
Allow your pan to get hot enough so that a couple drops of water dripped into the center will sizzle and quickly evaporate. Only add the oil after the pan is heated, then quickly add your ingredients – and again, don’t overcrowd the pan!
5. When Carving, You Don’t Slice Meat Against the Grain.
Cutting meat against the grain seems to go against the grain of our natural instincts. But, cutting with the length of the grain, or muscle fiber, can result in unnecessarily tough and chewy meat.
For delectable and tender pieces, cut across the grain, not with it. This habit pays particular dividends with the tougher cuts such as a flank steak, but works well with tender cuts, roasts and poultry too.
6. All of the Juices From Meat and Poultry End Up on the Cutting Board.
It’s hard to wait to eat, particularly if you’re hungry and the food is ready.
But if you don’t allow meat and poultry to stand for a bit before carving, all of the delicious juices will drain out, leaving your roast or bird with dry meat.
Giving the meat a bit of cooling-down time after it’s cooked helps to re-disperse the juices back into the meat. Be sure to allow enough time to for a resting period.
For smaller cuts like a steak or chicken breast, five minutes or so is adequate. However, for a large turkey or a rack of lamb, 20-30 minutes is required. Cover loosely with foil to keep the food warm, and set aside until ready to carve.
7. Your Salt Goes Down the Drain.
If you’ve gotten into the very healthy habit of marinating your meats but find that your dishes taste a little under-seasoned, reserve half of the salt called for in the marinade and wait to use it until just before cooking.
When foods are lacking flavor, we tend to over-season at the table – which means piling on the salt (not to mention, adding too much salt that ruins natural flavors). But there’s a way to keep sodium levels at a healthy level and to save the flavors by using only half the salt called for in a marinade recipe.
The meat will only absorb a small amount of salt while marinating, and its seasoning impact goes down the drain along with the marinade when you’re finished.
Instead, sprinkle the reserved salt on the meat or poultry when it comes out of the bath and just before cooking. Flavors will be enhanced and the salt will also create a beautiful, golden crust while cooking.
The also applies for breaded items. Reserve half of the salt called for, then sprinkle it directly on the ingredients before coating with the breading or flour mix.
8. Your Veggies Turn Soft and Mushy.
This is a timing issue, as the vegetables are often ready before the rest of the meal.
For crisp, bright veggies, add them into boiling water or a steamer for only three to seven minutes.
Green beans, asparagus, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts will all turn a vibrant color with a crisp texture, but if they have to wait in the water or steam, they’ll continue to cook even with the heat turned off. And the unpleasant result is limp, mushy, and washed out vegetables.
Here’s how to keep their colors bright and the texture fresh and crisp:
- When they’re finished cooking, plunge your veggies into an ice water bath or run under very cold water to stop the cooking process.
- Drain and place in a serving dish, covering loosely with foil and keep warm until you’re ready to serve.
9. Your Fresh Salad Greens Wilt and Fade.
There’s no question that sad, soggy salad greens are a bummer – and really unappetizing to look at.
To keep your salads looking and tasting their best, these tips will help:
- If you’ve washed your greens, they must be dried before mixing into a salad, as excess water will result in watery dressings with a thin taste. Or, with an oil based dressing, the water will repel the oil, leaving a puddle on the bottom of the bowl instead of coating the ingredients. Use a salad spinner to quickly and easily dry your greens, or blot gently with paper towels, taking care not to bruise the delicate leaves.
- Once your salad is made, don’t add the dressing until just before serving, as salad that’s allowed to sit in a liquid will be limp and lifeless. Under-dress the salad with a little bit less dressing than you think is necessary, and serve the rest on the side for diners to top up with if they desire.
- To dress a salad, pour the dressing along the sides of the bowl and toss to coat. Pouring onto the bowl rather than the salad will result in evenly coated ingredients, and will avoid over-saturating your salad or creating pools of dressing at the bottom of the bowl.
- Chilling your salad plates before serving will also help to keep greens fresh and crisp.
10. Your Homemade Baked Fries Are Charred, or Limp and Soggy. Or Both!
Baking fries is a much healthier method of cooking than deep frying. And if done right, it can replicate all the qualities we love about fries: a golden hue, crispy exterior and tender, flaky center – without the calories and cholesterol of deep frying.
However, if done poorly, baked fries seem to turn out pale and wimpy, or they dry out and get burnt to a crisp, neither of which is good.
The solution is quite simple – you need to pre-soak your cut fries in water first, 30 minutes for Russet potatoes, and 45 minutes for sweet potato fries. I know, on the surface it doesn’t make sense to add more water, but there’s a good reason.
Like most vegetables, potatoes have a high water content. And if that water is allowed to remain before roasting, the fries will partially steam in their own juices instead of baking. By soaking in water, the starch is pulled out of the potatoes’ fibers, which reduces the internal water content – so your fries will bake instead of steaming.
Cut potatoes into 1/4” lengthwise pieces, ensuring the strips are of uniform size, then soak in cold water for 30-45 minutes. Drain and blot dry with paper towels.
Lightly toss the dried fries with olive oil or a wee dollop of an herbed vinaigrette (great on sweet potato fries), then spread evenly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper – which will also help to absorb excess water. And remember, don’t crowd your fries… give them room to breathe and bake!
Bake on the bottom rack at 400°F for 25 -30 minutes for sweet potato fries, and 35 minutes for regular potato fries. Turn over once about halfway through the cooking time.
11. You’re Using the Wrong Oils For Cooking.
It’s a bit of a puzzle, isn’t it?
If you’re trying to eat a well-balanced diet, you’ve probably incorporated healthy oils into your cooking. However, healthy oils like olive oil have a low smoke point, and can produce voluminous columns of smoke when sautéing on high heat.
What’s worse, the healthy oil breaks down under the heat and then becomes unhealthy.
So, you try a healthy oil like coconut with a high smoke point, but its strong flavor is infusing some dishes with a nutty taste that’s not so great.
To avoid a cupboard full of bottled oils that aren’t getting used, and to use them in the most healthful ways, when consider a few points before buying cooking oils:
- Choose oils based on only two factors: flavor and smoke point. Consider first how you want to use the oil – out of the bottle on salad greens, or for sautéing or baking, and then choose one or two that will best suit your needs.
- Unrefined oils will have a lower smoke point, which makes them unsuitable for cooking over high heat. However, they’re usually full of rich flavor, which makes them great for salad dressings or drizzling over veggies.
- Olive, walnut, flaxseed, avocado, hemp or almond oil are all choices with a distinct flavor that may be used to enhance salads. Other good choices with a more neutral flavor are grapeseed or canola oil.
- For baking or frying, a refined oil with a high smoke point is the better choice. And unless you cook a lot in a particular style, choose an oil with a neutral taste as well.
- Sesame oil might be great for stir frying Asian dishes, but the rich nutty flavor wouldn’t be suitable for baking a cake.
- Sesame and coconut are strongly flavored oils with high smoke points. Healthy oils that remain stable at high heat and have a light, neutral taste include canola, peanut, sunflower and safflower.
- Avoid corn oil, with its high levels of saturated fats, and soybean oil, which is hydrogenized for a longer shelf life. Unfortunately that process also creates trans-fats, which are not healthy for us.
12. You Make Poor Substitutions When Baking.
In some areas of food preparation, making a substitution is no big deal – but with baking, it is.
Baking is as much about science as it is a creative endeavor. And precise amounts of ingredients are needed in order to facilitate the chemical changes that turn a bowl of runny dough into your favorite muffins. It’s basic chemistry, and as such, shouldn’t be messed with.
If you’re trying to cook healthier, don’t make substitutions in baking that will undermine the chemical chain reactions.
Instead, look for recipes that have been created to suit a Paleo, low-fat, or low-sugar, or vegan, or whatever diet – one that’s been developed in test kitchens by professional cooks and already has the kinks worked out.
For best results, follow the recipe and leave the experimenting to others when it comes to baking.
13. Darn! You Forgot to Soften the Butter.
A common oversight in baking, if you forgot to soften the butter, the remedy is simple.
Cut the amount of butter called for into small pats and spread out on a plate. Allow to sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes, then proceed as per recipe directions. Or better yet, use a butter bell to keep your butter out on the counter.
The flip side of this is that your butter is too soft. If so, just put it back in the fridge for 5-10 minutes to re-harden.
14. You Don’t Adjust Amounts When Switching Between Fresh and Dried Herbs.
In most cases, the flavor of dried herbs will be a bit more intense and concentrated than that of fresh herbs.
To benefit from the rich nuances of flavor that herbs offer, convert by using twice as much fresh herbs as dried, or half as much dried for fresh, depending on which way you’re adjusting.
While you’re at it, this is a good time to mention that, chances are, your spice cabinet is disorganized. This can be a hassle when you need to find a certain seasoning quickly. Check out Foodal’s review of the best spice racks on the market, and clean up those cabinets today!
15. You Try to Speed-cook Meat When Patience is Called For.
It kind of makes sense.
If a recipe calls for a dish to simmer for an hour, cranking up the heat and boiling hard for 20 or 30 minutes should do the same job, right? Ummm, not so much. Unless you enjoy chewy, tough and dry meat, that is.
This is another very common cooking faux pas, and usually occurs when we’re in a hurry or haven’t read the recipe all the way through, missing important info on cooking times.
Simmering refers to a very gentle, low boil with only a few bubbles breaking the surface at any moment. This low and slow heat is required to gently cook the meat while allowing it to tenderize, by breaking down the muscle tissue – and it simply takes time to accomplish.
This is often referred to braising and is the specialty of dutch ovens (although it can be accomplished in any pan).
Boiling meat will certainly cook it faster, but it doesn’t allow the breakdown of tissue to occur, so it ends up gnarly, tough, chewy, stringy or dry.
Even if you’re a brilliant cook and always marinate tough cuts of meat before cooking, it’s still a trade-off in terms of time.
Because, for a marinade to successfully tenderize, soaking the meat for at least one hour and up to several hours is required. So it’s a time toss-up.
You just have to accept that some dishes take time to develop, and turn the heat down to a simmer when the recipe tells you to.
16. Your Hard-boiled Eggs Look Like the Surface of the Moon.
Can’t peel a hard-boiled egg without taking big divots of the white with the shell?
While no method for peeling hard-boiled eggs seems to be foolproof, there are a couple of steps to follow that will give you very good results most of the time:
- Add the eggs to boiling water. Starting the eggs in hot water, rather than putting them in the pot with cold water and then bringing it to a boil, helps to separate the shell from the egg.
- Adding a teaspoon or two of white vinegar to the pot with a pinch of salt also seems to make a difference. Use one teaspoon for three eggs, and two teaspoons for up to six eggs.
- Don’t overcook, and when finished, plunge immediately into a bath of ice water. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before peeling.
- And don’t use fresh eggs. If you raise your own chickens or buy from a local farmer, allow the eggs to sit for 10-14 days before hard boiling, as very fresh eggs will always stick to the shell.
17. Your Pasta Gets Over-cooked to the Proverbial “Limp Noodle” Stage.
Cooking pasta can be a bit deceiving, which makes it very easy to not use enough water when cooking.
And, adding more water to the pot when your pasta’s only half done is a sure fire way to destroy its delicate texture and serve up limp, soggy noodles. As is using a pot that’s too small, which won’t allow the pasta enough room to cook evenly.
For firm yet tender results, cook one pound of dry pasta in 1.5 gallons (or six litres) of water. And don’t worry about adding too much water, as it will be drained off at the end. Using “too much” water won’t destroy the pasta’s integrity the way too little will.
Use a large, wide mouthed pot that will accommodate both the pasta and water, and that will allow cooking without the noodles getting trapped or sticking together.
Wait for the water to come to a full boil before adding the pasta, and cook for 3-5 minutes for fresh pasta, or about 7 minutes for dry pasta. Check to ensure that it’s cooked all the way through before draining and serving.
18. You Don’t Allow Rice to Steam After Cooking.
Rice is one of the most common grains eaten by a large part of the world’s population, yet cooking a pot of fluffy rice seems to be one of the great challenges for many a cook – with gummy, sticky rice being a very common complaint (unless, of course, you are trying to prepare glutinous Asian-style rice).
For great tasting rice with a light texture, only a few steps are required:
• Rinse the rice thoroughly under cold running water to remove any milling agents and excess starch.
• For white and brown rice, use twice as much water as rice, minus a tablespoon or two. For wild rice and blends, follow the package instructions for the correct ratios of water to rice.
• Ensure that your pot has a tight fitting lid, and just as soon as the water starts to boil, reduce heat to a low simmer and put the lid on. Don’t peek, and cook on low for 20 minutes for white rice and up to 30 minutes for brown.
• When the cooking time is up, turn off the heat and allow the rice to sit and steam for another 10 minutes. This resting period allows the trapped steam to finish off the cooking, resulting in fine, separate grains rather than a gummy mess.
If all else fails or you just want to simplify things, then invest in a rice cooker.
19. Your Big Birds or Roasts are Over or Under Cooked.
One of the least expensive but most valuable kitchen tools, the meat thermometer, is sadly underutilized. As a result, large cuts of meat and fowl are still bloody in the center, or over cooked and dried out.
The easiest solution is to invest in a meat thermometer, because it eliminates all of the guesswork.
And one of the coolest is the digital probe version – a heat-proof wire runs from the probe to an external unit on the counter, which will beep when ready. It completely eliminates the need to open the oven door just to check on your meal’s progress, so the heat remains in the oven and the cooking time is shorter.
Foodal recommends MeasuPro Digital Oven, Meat and Cooking Thermometer with Stainless Steel Probe available on Amazon
Meat thermometers are well worth the few dollars they cost.
20. Your Cast Iron Pans are Sticking.
I know. It’s not easy for some of us to put a pot or pan away if it hasn’t been washed.
But if you’re washing your cast iron cookware every time you use it, chances are you’re washing off the seasoning. And it’s this seasoning that produces a natural nonstick surface, protecting the pan from rust.
To clean a cast iron pan without washing, use a dry rice scrub. Add a small handful of uncooked rice to the pan, and rub vigorously to remove any grease or food residue. When the rice is dirty, toss it out and replace with clean rice, repeating the process until it no longer turns brown.
If you must wash your cast iron after use, give it a light re-seasoning before it goes back into the cupboard.
This isn’t complicated or difficult. Simply wash and rinse your pan, and wipe dry. Place on a burner on high heat for just a couple of minutes.
Add a drop of two of oil and rub it in thoroughly with a paper towel on all surfaces, including lids. Go lightly as you don’t want oil sitting in the bottom – only a light sheen should cover the cast iron.
Put the lid on and allow your pan to sit on the burner until cool. Give it a final wipe to clean up any excess oil before storing, and it’s ready to go for the next time.
Read more about cleaning and caring for your cast iron, and if you’re in the market for a new pan, the pros and cons of these rustic relics compared to pans of other materials.
21. Your Beautiful Gravy Turns Into a Lumpy Mess.
It’s such a bummer! Everything for your lovely dinner is ready, but the gravy looks as though it’s been infected with some sort of doughy pox… and there’s just no hiding those bobbing white lumps.
What happened? Well, there’s a few reasons for lumpy gravy.
Adding flour, or any thickener, directly into a hot liquid such as broth or stock will cause lumps, as will adding hot liquid too quickly into a roux of flour and pan drippings.
And if you’re making gravy in a large roasting pan, hot spots will also cause the flour to ball up and resist integration into the sauce.
In any sauce or gravy where a starch (flour, cornstarch, bread crumbs…) is used to add body and texture, the thickener needs to be added slowly to the hot liquid, stirring as you go until the desired consistency is reached.
And for a roux, the heat has to stay low as the liquid is slowly incorporated to thicken without lumps.
To make gravy from a hot liquid such as broth:
- First, make a flour/water slurry by adding a few tablespoons to 1/4 cup of flour to a small jar (8 – 10 ounces) with a tight fitting lid.
- Add water to about three quarters full, secure the lid and shake like mad until the mix is smooth and lump-free.
- Heat the broth or stock to barely a boil, then slowly whisk in the flour mix a little at a time until a smooth, pourable consistency is reached.
- Turn down heat and simmer on low for 10 minutes to remove the floury taste, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Season lightly with salt and pepper before serving.
If you’re making gravy from a roux of flour and pan drippings:
- First, strain the juices from the pan and separate the fat from the roasting juices. But, leave a couple of tablespoons of fat in the pan along with the crusty browned bits.
- Make a roux in the pan by heating to medium and adding flour to the fat, scraping up all the flavorful, caramelized brown bits as you do and whisking constantly.
- When thick, slowly add the reserved pan juices and a hot stock of suitable flavor, slowly thickening the gravy until it reaches a smooth, pourable consistency. Simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Season with salt and pepper, and when ready to serve, strain into a gravy boat.
To minimize hot spots in a large pan, don’t overheat it and stir constantly while thickening.
It might take a few attempts to develop your ‘gravy hand’, so if lumps do happen, pour the gravy through a strainer, or puree with a hand-held immersion blender – no one will ever know!
You can also check out Lynne’s article on making a béchamel sauce (a French white “mother” sauce) for more tips.
That’s the end of our look at 21 of the most common cooking mistakes, and how to correct them.
For more beginner cooking tips that will help you to adjust to cooking more at home in three simple steps, please take a look at this post.
If you have any other pressing cooking issues that need a solution, leave a comment… it’s a great way to find the solutions you’re looking for!
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.